As usual, definitions are important here; both of the subject matter and what "approval" entails.
I'm going to focus on, specifically, publications. This can include scripture translations, books, prayers, or as we're seeing recently, applications. What does it take, then, for the Church to approve a publication? And if it is approved, what does that really mean? Does it change theology?
Let's look at the process involved, step by step, in the publication of a document, the applicable Code of Canon Law, and what is revealed within that.
1. First, the author of a publication submits it to the Local Ordinary (The Bishop).
2. The Local Ordinary assigns a Censor to review the work. [The Bishop does not review the work himself]
Canon 830.1 states:
"The conference of bishops can compile a list of censors outstanding in knowledge, correct doctrine, and prudence to be available to diocesan curias or can also establish a commission of censors which local ordinaries can consult; the right of each local ordinary to entrust judgment regarding books to persons he approves, however, remains intact. " (The Latin is far more precise that what can be translated in the vernacular).
Note what the Canon states about the Censor:
1. Outstanding in knowledge
2. Outstanding in correct doctrine
3. Outstanding in prudence
Note that either the Conference of Bishops compiles this list for the sake of the diocesan curias or establishes a commission for the Local Ordinaries to consult.
Note further that the Local Bishop's authority over to whom he is willing to entrust a publication remains intact; of the pool of censors, that means the Local Ordinary still gets to choose who will review the work.
The Censor has an important role, and there's a great deal to it which also involves the obligations of the Bishop to both the Censor and the Author.
Canon 830.2 states:
In fulfilling this office, laying aside any favoritism, the censor is to consider only the doctrine of the Church concerning faith and morals as it is proposed by the ecclesiastical magisterium.
* The Censor cannot show favoritism
* The Censor must consider ONLY the doctrine of the Church concerning faith/morals
* That, as proposed by the magisterium [as opposed to popular fly-by-night ideas, etc.]
Canon 830.3 states:
A censor must give his or her opinion in writing: if is favorable, the ordinary, according to his own prudent judgment, is to grant permission for publication to take place, with his name and the time and place of the permission granted expressed. If he does not grant permission, the ordinary is to communicate the reasons for the denial to the author of the work.
Let's take a look at that canon, because it reveals a great deal about the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur:
* A Censor must give his or her opinion in writing
* If it is favorable, [Nihil Obstat - "nothing obstructing"] the Bishop (according to his own prudent judgment, ie: does he trust the Censor?) MUST grant permission for the work to be published.
* And, if this is the case, the Bishop must let it be published with his name, time, and place of the permission granted. [Imprimatur: "It may be published"]
* If the Bishop does not grant permission, he must communicate the reason for the denial to the author.
Let's just say I use my Master's degree to write a book about Catholic doctrine and its relevance to our culture today. It would be thousands of pages long, of course. It's also very likely every other student in my graduating class compiled the same kind of book with varying areas of specialization.
Because of the subject matter of my book and the submissions of my friends, and the fact that we want to be taken seriously as legitimate theologians in contributing something to the Church, we submit our works to our local Bishop.
The Bishop doesn't look at the work himself; he's far too busy. Even if I knew him personally as a good friend, he probably still wouldn't read the book himself both to avoid the temptation of favoritism (explicitly prohibited by the Law) and because he's actually got better things to do - like preach and provide for the Sacraments.
Thus, as Canon Law established, the good Bishop takes my work and the work of all my fellow graduates and assigns each of these tomes to a Censor who has been appointed either by the Conference of Bishops or from a designated pool of Censors. In other words, he entrusts this work to, typically, a lay person with good knowledge of doctrine and a sense of prudence.
Now, that appointed Censor might not like what I'm saying in my book, or may actually love it completely and want to make me a Saint because of it. However, the Censor cannot offer a visceral reaction. On the contrary, that Censor is obligated to objectively evaluate my book on the basis of Catholic faith and morals. Does anything I say in the book contradict the Faith outright? Does it state something contrary to the moral teachings of the Church?
Mind you..there's a lot of leeway there...the Censor must use prudent judgment; perhaps some of my wording is imprecise and perhaps I don't work from definitions, and perhaps my work can be a bit wishy-washy in that regard. However, in the fair judgment of the Censor, does my work actually contradict, outright, the Faith and Morals of Catholicism?
There are many factors there such as: how well has this Censor been formed? All theological degrees are not equal; the fact is, some universities are more faithful than others, some provide a more complete theology, others are...uh...lacking, to put it charitably. The fact is, the Censor is using his or her own judgment given their specific knowledge, no matter where it falls on the very broad spectrum. The Censor might actually be completely mis-informed about some areas of Catholic faith/morals, yet the Bishop may still trust his or her judgement with regard to my work.
So let's just say that the Censor read my thousand-page book and acted in accordance to Canon Law. If he thought my work did not contradict Church teaching on faith and morals, he must give that approval in writing to the Bishop (Nihil Obstat - nothing obstructing), and the Bishop, unless he has reason to believe the Censor is way off, will accept that judgment and put his stamp (Imprimatur) on the publication...because he has to.
Now, to the contrary, if the Censor thought I was off my rocker, he must also tell the Bishop that, and even if the Censor gave his approval and the Bishop got an inkling maybe said Censor was wrong and looked further, discovering that I'm a total heretic, the Bishop must inform me that my work cannot be published and what I did wrong. That would give me a chance to correct my book and then re-submit it. Or choose apostasy.
Further, does that help to reveal the fact that the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur on various questionable publications does not serve as "Church approval" by any means? There are some Bishops who are more prudent than others in those they allow to censor work in their name, as we all know. There are also a large number of people, Catholics included, who take these "stamps" to mean that the Bishop himself read and approved certain things. I assure you he did not, but for perhaps a few rare cases.
As a friend of mine suggested, why doesn't the work get assigned to a Canon Lawyer? Answer: Canon Lawyers are overworked and underpaid as it is. They have even less time than the Bishop to read the myriad of works submitted!
That still leaves one question:
According to Canon 824, Any writings intended for publication and distribution should be submitted.
* Can 826.3 Prayer books for public or private use - required submission.
* Can. 827 Catechisms and catechetical materials require approval of the local ordinary.
* Can 827.2 Textbooks of scripture, theology, canon law, ecclesiastical history, or religious / moral disciplines require approval of "competent authority" in order to be used. (The authority referred to here may go beyond the local ordinary or require more than just the local Bishop's approval)
* Can 827.3 Books about about scripture, theology, canon law, ecclesiastical history, religious / moral disciplines not used as textbooks are recommended to be submitted to the local ordinary [the type of thing I'm most likely to write]
Good question, isn't it?
Well, this is where Canon Law has not caught up with social media, which itself is in a constant state of flux. All we bloggers can do is take what we have and see how the law applies. We are encouraged to use social media to share our faith, to evangelize, to teach. However, we ARE subject to canon law; virtue and prudence should be our guides in what we publish.
Certainly, we are not asked or required to submit our blogs to the Bishop for approval. However, if I decided to publish my blog as a Catholic book, intended for distribution, it would be recommended that I submit it to my Ordinary. If I wrote a more formal work on the theology of the Church, or compiled prayers, I would be required to submit it, which, naturally, makes sense. After all, in the latter case I would be doing so as an act formal to the role of theologian; I would be trying to contribute to the theology of the Church in some formal way.
Disclaimer: With all that said, and with all I have written here, although I have tried to do this faithfully and with reference to the materials I received in graduate school, and with reference to the specific Canons, I have to offer this disclaimer: my blog is not approved by the Bishop. It has not been submitted to a Censor and it's quite possible I am wrong on some point or have stated something improperly. Blogs should NEVER be used for formal study, although they can be useful to point to further information.
It disturbs me, though, that so many people put their faith in the stamps "Nihil Obstat" and "Imprimatur" when really, those approvals mean very little. They are only as good as the understanding, faithfulness, and integrity of the person reading the work.
Keep that in mind the next time you look at a work, and judge it not by those designations but rather by the actual content of the publication.
Your soul is worth far more than a faulty Imprimatur or mistaken Nihil Obstat.
And your intellect is worth far more than the media's interpretation of Catholic terms they don't even try to understand.
Faith and reason go together, my friends. Know the terms, know what they mean, and if you don't understand them don't ever be afraid to ask! :-)